The Exiles at Home (by Hilary McKay)

It's only about six weeks ago that I read 'The Exiles', by Hilary McKay, a wonderful author whom I have only discovered in the past year. I wasn't sure if I was going to like it at first, but it grew on me quickly, leaving me wanting more. So I was pleased to discover a copy of its sequel inexpensively online.

'The Exiles at home', continues the story of a somewhat bohemian family with four daughters aged from six up to thirteen. Life is generally quite chaotic in their household, and they're usually late for everything.

The story begins during the Christmas holidays, with the thrill of snow. Rachel (aged nearly 9) asks for - and is given - a sledge, which becomes her favourite possession. Phoebe (6 and three-quarters) realises with horror that the turkey is a dead bird, and decides to be vegetarian...

All too quickly school term begins. On the first morning, the girls are not just disorganised and late - Ruth and Naomi, the two older girls, realise half-way there on the bus that they have forgotten their books, their lunches and their PE kit. Then when they arrive at school, Ruth realises that she's still wearing her pyjama jacket with her school skirt. She spends all day in the library, and discovers in the evening that she is ill. In her rather dazed state during the day, she decides to donate her Christmas money to the upkeep of a small boy in Africa, and signs up to do this monthly for a year, even though she is five years too young to do so and has only a pound per week for her pocket money.

The book is a wonderful, warm-hearted, delightful family tale of generosity and inventiveness; of girls who are given a great deal of freedom, but who care deeply about responsibility and commitments. Ruth and her sisters determine to continue her pledge all year, even though they have to discover new and unusual ways to earn what is, to them, quite a significant amount of money.

In doing so, they make friends with a very eldelry couple who want a cheerful garden, and with a small boy whom they teach some bad habits. They write letters to Joseck in Africa, and the story moves to his school with little glimpses of his life from time to time.

Written in 1993, this book reads almost like a book from my childhood, set in a rather more trusting period when children could go out and about by themselves and there few concerns about getting to know strangers so long as they were sensible. I love the style, and will be looking out for yet more by Hilary McKay.

Definitely recommended to anyone from the age of about seven and upwards. Including adults.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 3rd May 2012

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